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'The Miniaturist' is as Beautiful as it is Cryptic
September 9, 2018  | By David Hinckley
 

A dozen scenes in The Miniaturist, the TV adaptation of Jessie Burton’s best-selling 2014 novel, look as if they could have been photoshopped directly from a Vermeer painting.

That’s not surprising, in a sense, because The Miniaturist is set in 17th century Amsterdam. It’s still a tribute to the filmmakers, who have made the city, the houses and the time look stunning.

With all due respect to the acting, the visuals are the best thing about The Miniaturist, a BBC production that aired in the U.K. late last year and starts a three-week run on PBS Sunday at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).

The Miniaturist ran over two nights in Britain. It’s been recut into three episodes here, which creates no artistic problems.

The story itself, told almost entirely through its relatively small core cast, starts off mildly disturbing and gets progressively creepier.

Nella Oortman (Anya Taylor-Joy, top) is an 18-year-old girl who is bullied into marriage, albeit rather gently by today's standards of bullying, to ensure the security of her siblings and family.

Her husband Johannes Brandt (Alex Hassell) seems kind, chivalrous and funny, a nice combination in a man who has also become a successful merchant.

After Nella moves into his luxurious mansion – where the light streams through the windows just as it did for Vermeer – she starts to notice a few peculiarities.

One is that Johannes seems unusually close to his sister Marin (Romola Garai), who is clearly jealous of the newcomer. Another is that Johannes becomes too busy to spend the kind of time with Nella that she had hoped for and expected.

Nella sporadically tries to see if she can get some intel from the housemaid Cornelia (Hayley Squires) or Johannes’s manservant Otto (Paapa Essiedu). They too become elusive, partly because Nella’s frustration can lead her to bark at them.

Finally, there’s the miniaturist thing that gives the story its title. As a wedding gift, Johannes buys Nella an extremely expensive dollhouse, a showpiece with nine rooms she’s told she can fill with miniature everything.

She gets the name of a miniaturist, sends him a note and starts getting pieces for the house, a few at a time.

The craftsmanship is splendid. It’s the selection that’s unsettling. Nella gets pieces for which she did not ask, pieces that precisely replicate items in the real house – when she has had no indication the miniaturist could ever have been there to see them.

One day, the miniaturist’s package includes life-like dolls of Johannes and Marin, which leaves Nella mystified and maybe a little scared.

In the hands of another production company, we could have a haunted house horror story on our hands. With the BBC and PBS, we’re looking for other explanations, and by the end of the first episode, an apparently major piece of the puzzle has been revealed.

The characters in The Miniaturist aren’t especially endearing. Even Nella seems a bit cold, though we sympathize with her increasingly troubling dilemma.

Still, the mystery itself becomes mildly intriguing – and if you don’t like the story, mute the sound and just savor the look.

 
 
 
 
 
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